Saturday, October 31, 2020

Matthew Workman Never Wastes a Drive

Matthew Workman is many things. He's a husband and a father, a story-teller and a writer, a journalist and a podcaster. He is almost certainly one of the foremost native English-speaking authorities on the Faroe Islands in the world. He knew Phillip Seymour Hoffman when they were kids (kind of). Most importantly, at least insofar as this blog post is concerned, he is a long-time Uber and Lyft driver in Portland, and he's written a book chronicling some of his adventures, Driver Diaries: Five Years of Driving Strangers Around Portland. You should order a copy.

I'm not doing this (well, not solely) to shill for an old friend, partly because it seems presumptuous to call Matthew that. "Old acquaintance" is more like it, though I'd like to think we like each other as much as any other set of old acquaintances ever like each other on Facebook, and that we would be friendly if we ever met in person again. (I did date the woman who later became his wife for part of a summer, but I don't know if that would contribute to the friendliness or get in the way of it.) We first got to know each other very nearly 30 years ago, when we were both students at Brigham Young University and, more importantly, involved in putting out a very, very unofficial off-campus newspaper named Student Review. I wrote about it here (and quoted Matt!) when it was going through a revival (its second or third, I think) close to ten years ago; the only evidence I can find of it today is a Twitter feed that hasn't really been active since 2016, but hey, who knows what the future may hold.

The point, however, is simply this: Matthew and I were both young college students, figuring out what kind of grown-ups we were going to be, and a lot of our growing happened through Student Review. The perspectives I brought to the paper, and the associations I built through it, were of one type, involving one cohort of people: for the most part, we were a ponderous and serious and determinedly outrageous bunch. Matthew's type was different. He wrote a regular column for the paper--"Matthew Workman's Wasted Characters"--and the persona he projected through his writings was thoughtful, but never heavy, sharp-witted, but never sarcastic. Mainly he was a light-hearted observer of the foibles of the our campus and our world (which, weirdly, was very nearly BYU's motto); his weekly columns become required reading among a surprisingly large cohort of BYU students. Frankly, I was kind of jealous of the guy. With the perspective of youth, in which a 1 or 2 or, maybe at most, 3-year-difference can appear like a massive cultural gap, I saw him and his gang as so much more easy-going, so much more comfortable with themselves than perennially fraught me and my particular gang of malcontents. On more than one occasion when I crashed at the crazy house where he and his pals threw their parties and cranked out their papers, I found myself sticking Matthew and his crew into episodes of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" in my head. (I hope that comes out as complimentary, Matt.)

Well, anyway, life happens to us all, and decades go by without much, if any, contact between us. But slowly, social media puts us back into each others orbit, slightly. I was delighted to discover that he'd preserved the old name of his Student Review column for his blog. And then I heard about his plans for a book. Always late for things like this, I never contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, and missed the first batch of books. Luckily, a mutual friend had some additional copies, and shared one with me. I'm grateful he did. Is it the Great American Novel? Of course not; it's a self-published 100-page collection of anecdotes, so scale your expectations back accordingly. But when properly scaled, I think you can see that this book is a gem.

I'm not an Uber person myself, for reasons of both inclination and ideology, but Matthew's prose makes me kind of wish I was otherwise. In the more than 10,000 drives he estimates that he's made over his years as a drive, he's encountered a huge range of situations, less than 20 of which he includes in the book, but all of them are described with a charming mix of sympathy, bemusement, kindness, and wit. In the nearly three decades since I first started to read his work, Matthew has perhaps grown even more deadpan (when a woman his helping shares a sorrowful story of drunken sex, he can't think of anything else to say than "It's a bit early for that, isn't it?"; after being sexually propositioned by a handsome, apparently desperate man, he let's him off at his destination with a hapless "Enjoy the rest of your night!"). Not that he can't be serious; his trips have included a woman who had just escaped a sexual assault, a man delivering himself to prison; and, in the longest entry in the book, an affecting story of his attempt to deal with a woman likely suffering from dementia who couldn't tell him where she needed to go or who to reach out to for help. But, despite the occasional darkness of the book, there is a lot of ridiculousness and delight and some outright joy too--the ride that ended with him being able to drive his minivan onto the tarmac of the Portland International Airport, or the evening in which he had "two rides in a row where I could talk about penises without repercussion."

Was it a book that changed my life for the better? No. But was it a read that put a smile on my face, that taught me things that I'd never knew before, and that make me think about the quotidian randomness and grace that ordinary life brings? Absolutely. Dave Eggers (not that Dave Eggers, another Dave Eggers whom Matthew knows) calls it in a blurb "the defining work of gig-employment era," and no, it's not that at all. Matthew doesn't have the sociological chops to reflect in that way on his work, and neither does he want to be that boring. What this slight book is, in the end, is pretty simple: it's a collection of stories about people taking an Uber in the Portland area, usually late at night, with thoughts both generous and sincere about those stories attached. Every single one of those stories is worth reading, and not one was wasted. Matthew, don't ever change; you gave me a good day this Saturday, and I appreciate it very much.

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